The Unaccountable Freak & the Comet
I think it’s fair to say no comet is as popular in the collective consciousness as Halley’s Comet.
Every once in a while another will pop up, such as Hale-Bopp, which garnered a lot of attention in 1997 due to the cult called Heaven’s Gate, or last year’s spectacular NEOWISE. But Halley’s Comet has captivated humanity for millennia, thanks to its short-period nature. The icy ball circles the sun every 75 or 76 years, which means some people get to see it twice while they inhabit the earth. Halley’s Comet is also the only known short-period comet that can be seen with the naked eye, so when it arrives it provides quite a show.
The last time the comet graced our vantage point was 1986. One of my earliest nature memories involves my family attempting to view Halley’s Comet in Maine. It sticks in my brain mainly because coyotes bayed all around us as we stepped out into a clear night. If we’re still kicking in 2061 we can see her again.
Though named for Edmond Halley, who worked out the comet’s periodicity in 1705 and predicted its return in 1758, humans have marveled at the comet for many moons. Though not completely verified, it is likely ancient Greeks noted Halley’s Comet in 467 BC. In 240 BC, a Chinese historical chronicle definitively notes an appearance and two Babylonian tablets mark sightings in 164 BC. Since then, we have kept tabs on this celestial visitor.
In 1066, before the famous battle of Hastings in England, the comet showed up and put fear into the people, who viewed it as a negative omen. Eilmer of Malmesbury wrote of the appearance:
“Not long after, a comet, portending (they say) a change in governments, appeared, trailing its long flaming hair through the empty sky: concerning which there was a fine saying of a monk of our monastery called Æthelmær. Crouching in terror at the sight of the gleaming star, ‘You’ve come, have you?’, he said. ‘You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.’”
In a way, they were right to be scared. William the Conqueror came in after the comet and brought a new way of life to the land. Halley’s Comet then shows up as a star in the Bayeux Tapestry.
Though William’s fate (or at least timing) might have aligned with Halley’s Comet, one man’s life seemed inextricably bound with the celestial body.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on 30 November 1835. Just two weeks prior, Halley’s Comet hit its perihelion, the closest point to the sun during its elliptical orbit.
In the next three-quarters of a century, Clemens became Mark Twain, one of the most famous American writers of his day or any day. He lived through the Civil War and produced some of literature’s most enduring works in The Prince and the Pauper, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. William Faulkner later called him “the father of American literature.”
Twain felt a kinship with Halley’s Comet.
He was keenly aware of his birthdate coinciding with a visit from the comet. As he grew older, he seemingly felt it coming back. In 1909, he produced the following quote:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”
1910 rolled around and brought Halley’s Comet with it. The closest approach occurred on 20 April. At his estate in Connecticut, one day later, Twain succumbed to a heart attack!
I’m sure he meant “freak” in the greatest possible manner!
BONUS FACT: How should one pronounce Halley’s Comet? Very commonly, in my experience, you might hear the name rhyme with “daily.” It’s also fairly common to know that pronunciation is dead wrong. I’ve often heard people use a word that rhymes with “valley” instead. One of Edmond Halley’s biographers claimed the name should rhyme with the word “crawly.” How is one to know? Apparently, confusion is OK in this situation, as the man’s last name was not even spelled uniformly during his lifetime. Various iterations included Hailey, Haley, Hayley, Halley, Hawley, and Hawly! Essentially, we don’t know how he said his own name. According to the New York Times, modern people with the surname Halley almost universally go with a pronunciation that rhymes with “valley.” Good enough for me!
BONUS BONUS FACT: Halley’s Comet is currently still moving away from us. It will reach aphelion on 2 November 2023. So in just over two and a half years, it will start coming toward us again!